Every municipality, county, and state is struggling to address the housing affordability and homelessness issue that grows each year, threatening our economies and the quality of life of our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
Over the past century, our nation has been oriented to the development of single-family, detached housing as the normative model for economically secure families. Multifamily housing has been tolerated as a necessity, but in most every community it is not desired or sought by municipal leaders, or viewed as beneficial by people who want peace, security, and the kind of life single-family neighborhoods offer.
William Levitt understood this after the end of World War II, and so his developments in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey thrived because of the so-called American dream. Willingboro [N.J.] exists today as the poster child in our county to this tradition.
Addressing the lack of affordable housing has been arguably New Jersey’s greatest challenge. Millions of dollars have been spent fighting over the right and responsibility to provide it in each municipality. The Salt and Light Co., of which I am president, sought to develop a reasonable alternative to a single-family dwelling on a lot in Willingboro, where we suffered the loss of a 40-year-old dwelling to fire. We sought to provide a two-unit structure in its place when we rebuilt. Instead of a four-bedroom, two-bath, one-kitchen house, we proposed a four-bedroom, two-bath, two-kitchen home that would serve two smaller families, each with a door separating their space from the other family.
Thus, we sought a duplex variance that would in every way externally look just the same as the single-family structure and serve the exact same number of people. Willingboro’s Zoning Board denied it, but Judge Ronald Bookbinder reversed it, granting approval. Willingboro appealed, and our approval was subsequently reversed in Willingboro’s favor on the basis that municipalities have the right to preserve existing single-family zoning.
This is counter to the fair-share argument that led to the creation of affordable housing mandates from the Mount Laurel court decisions of the 1980s. So the case became a permanent ruling when the Supreme Court refused to hear it, settling the matter.
Now, surprisingly, Minneapolis is moving to approve permitting single-family conversions and new construction as a right by zoning in every district, thus allowing the marketplace to respond to the need and allow private investors and developers to meet the social demand of our time.
The New Jersey Legislature should seriously consider adopting a statewide law that defines “single family” zoning as permitting one or two units on one lot, just as the current land-use regulations exempt the same from site-plan approval and the Federal Housing Administration permits one- to four-family structures to be financed as single-family properties.
This would open the door to thousands of affordable housing units being developed without any government funding and make them invisible to the public, thus providing a much-higher quality of life for single-parent families and those with lower incomes to live in thriving suburban neighborhoods. It would also make much better use of our land than developing new housing on precious open space and farmland that feeds our nation.
In an era in which 50 percent or more of all children are born to single parents, affordable housing for the new dominant family structure is a justice issue. We who have a share of the proverbial pie should not continue to hoard it for ourselves and shut the door to single parents who are committed to providing for their families.
To anyone who knows Jesus’ words, “As often as you have done it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me,” those words ring loud and clear in my ears.
A version of this opinion article originally appeared in the Burlington County Times.